briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, March 11, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Coronavirus as National Security Threat... and More: The Illusion of Earthly Security Revealed

The numbers continue, of course, to go up. As of yesterday, 118,101 total cases of infection with the coronavirus, COVID-19, and beyond that the death toll of 4,262 in the United States. 900 cases, 29 deaths. Now let’s be thankful that in the United States, those numbers of both cases and deaths are relatively low, but we’re also looking at a huge test case for the United States as a society. And beyond the United States, we’re looking at the global community insofar as you can even speak of a global community. You can speak at least of global communities known around the globe, but we are also looking at new developments that previous generations of human beings could not have experienced.

Neil Ferguson, historian at Yale University serving universities on both sides of the Atlantic, prominent author, has written an article for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Network Effects Multiply a Viral Threat.” The most interesting aspect of his article is where he points to the existence of networks all over the world that are now traveling at digital speed and, of course, now viruses that are traveling at least as fast as a modern airplane. Modern jet aircraft can travel hundreds of miles an hour and that means that the human beings on those aircraft and the viruses inside those human beings can travel just as far and just as fast. He concludes his article by pointing to COVID-19 and defining it as, “A perfect illustration of the vulnerability and fragility of our networked world.”

Now that takes me to another article. This one appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. This one’s by Gerald F. Seib who writes the Capital Journal column for The Wall Street Journal and the point he is making in this article is that the COVID-19 virus is going to require a rewriting not just of American health policy but of American national security policy as well. From a Christian worldview perspective, this is really interesting.

If you take the course of my life—I was born during the height of the Cold War, the last years of the Eisenhower administration—the great threat confronting the United States was the Soviet Union and beyond that, the communist block. And so the Cold War, as it was known from the end of World War Two throughout the end of the 20th century was the basic frame of reality. And the threat was real. I was born in Florida and even as a young child, I can remember the tremors of the Cuban Missile Crisis and I can remember the constant air cover over the state and words like “strategic air command” and “B52 bomber,” “F4 Phantom fighters,” well, they were very much a part of my vocabulary as a boy, even in elementary school.

But the reality is that the world grew only more complex over time. And by the end of the 20th century, we knew that national security threats were far beyond what had been imagined rightly during the period of the Cold War. The Cold War had a defined threat for the United States that was world communism and that threat had a capital, in the Soviet Union, it was Moscow, but it also had a second capital and it was in China, Peking as it was known then, later synoecized to Beijing. And of course it had less significant capitals as well. But you could take a globe and you could divide almost all the countries of the globe into those that were aligned with the free world or were aligned with the communist world and a third category that defined themselves as non-aligned. All of those countries would have had some designation. But by the end of the 20th century, it became clear that the threats were far more complex.

For one thing, the end of the 20th century was the beginning of the digital age as we know it. And that meant that there were new opportunities for threats. Even verbs like “hacking” entered into our vocabulary and the espionage that took place during the Cold War became something that was available to almost any eighth grader by the time you entered the digital world in the end of the 20th century. Furthermore, the United States had to take stock of the fact that even with the end of the Cold War, this nation and our civilization still faced enemies. It still faced global challenges. Some of them were ideological, others of them were economic, and of course there were threats that went far beyond what previous generations in the United States could have understood. But the point being made by Gerald Seib in this article in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal is that now infectious diseases are going to have to be factored into the national security plan of the United States.

Now, as he points out to some extent, these were already identified as threats, but nothing like, nothing precisely like the COVID-19 challenge was actually factored in to American national security policy. Seib writes, “For years, national security professionals had been telling one another that in a post-Cold War world with a globally connected economy, nontraditional threats such as cyber-attacks, biological warfare, and global pandemics should be getting more attention.” Later Seib reflects upon the inevitable aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and writes, “Certainly the crisis will make American firms think harder about a question they already had been pondering in the trade fights between the US and China. Is it smart to be so dependent upon a single source for either parts or finished products when so many external factors, political currents in the United States, heavy handed tactics in China, now a global epidemic could undermine the reliability of that source?”

Now remember this newspaper is The Wall Street Journal. It is, after all, the leading newspaper of the financial class in the United States and its first instincts are to look at the financial implications of any story. But from a worldview perspective, those financial implications point to even deeper implications. Here we are told that American firms are going to have to think twice about being so dependent upon one other nation, in this case, China, both as a source of manufacturing potential and as potential markets. The point Seib is making is that dependence upon one nation means that when there is a disruption in that one nation, it becomes a major issue for the United States. But that’s just a point to the economic issues. One issue, certain to be faced in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, but the bigger issue with which Seib begins his article is the reality that the United States faces threats that go beyond the human threats go beyond even digital threats.

In the case of COVID-19, we’re looking at a biological threat. We are looking at a virus which remember is a microscopic organism that lives only within other living organisms and uses that host organism in order to replicate itself at the host organism’s expense. In a human being, that means that a virus begins to use up our health in order to replicate itself. In a fallen world, it is a perfect illustration of the corruption of creation and the effects of sin. But it’s also very interesting that for a nation like the United States of America, at the end of the 20th century declared to be the world’s only superpower, a state like the United States with its mighty arsenal of democracy as Roosevelt called it, with its massive armed forces with, this tactical warfare ability, with its seven ocean fleet Navy. Even so the United States has threats that go far beyond what can be seen on radar, much less with the naked eye, and that includes the biological threat.

It is deeply humbling to the United States of America. It’s deeply humbling to our political class. How exactly do the politicians and government leaders in positions of authority right now serve the American people in light of the COVID-19 crisis? What will be the shape of the challenge that they and we will face tomorrow? What will be the implications and results of decisions made today or delayed from today? The reality is that there is a deeply humbling experience taking place in the United States where even those who are believed to be the most powerful human beings on earth wielding the most powerful instruments of political, economic, and military power, they are unable to control a tiny little microscopic virus as it replicates and of course as it does so much damage amongst humanity as it does so.

But we’re looking not only the fact that this is a humbling experience for those in political leadership. It’s humbling for all of humanity if we will only observe and understand what is going on here or you might put it another way, our failure adequately to understand at this point what is going on here. We’re all called upon in different spheres of life to make responsible decisions based upon the threat of this virus, but it’s not at all clear exactly what that means in every circumstance. We’re also looking at the fact that if you are considering China versus the United States of America, you’re not only looking at a different schedule for the coronavirus, you are also looking at two very different societies organized according to two very different sets of foundational principles. And of course even under those foundational political principles are worldview realities that are even deeper. The view of humanity in China according to the official ideology of the Chinese communist party is extremely different from the view of humanity and human dignity and individual liberty that was the fruit of Western civilization and that civilization itself based upon Christian biblical presuppositions.

The political principles that order the Chinese government and the dominance of the Chinese communist party are extremely different than the political dynamic of the ordered experiment and constitutional liberty that exists in the United States. Just consider something that isn’t subtle here. In China, you talk about the Chinese Communist Party. In the United States, lest we remind ourselves at the very least, we are talking about the Republican and Democratic parties. The plural use of the noun “parties” represents a vast worldview distinction with the Chinese use of the singular “party,” and in the United States we do not have an autocrat. We do not have a totalitarian government and we also have use of human dignity and of individual freedom that means that in the United States there are not the government levers of authority and power that obviously do exist in China.

That comes down to concrete terms like this: there is no way that in the United States you could have the same kind of government enforced lockdown that was possible in China. Furthermore, in the United States we have an entire civilizational structure that is based upon a certain kind of freedom based interdependence. We decide where we’re going to shop, we decide what foods we’re going to eat, we decide what we’re going to do with our time. In general, we decide where we are going to go. We decide where we are going to live. We, as human beings, as Americans in particular, are accustomed to making all of these decisions and those decisions take place within a web of interconnectedness. But what happens when that web of interconnectedness is disrupted? That’s what we’re facing right now. To put it bluntly, the Chinese communist party has power, autocratic totalitarian power that the president of the United States and the entire government of the United States does not have.

Now under conditions of national emergency, such as a time of total war, the United States has marshaled greater than normal control over the society. But even then, it was a qualitative difference between what is now found in China. There’s something else that follows from this distinction between the two civilizations and the opposing worldviews. In the United States, there is virtually direct political accountability. If the American people do not believe that their leaders are operating rightly and leading effectively in the midst of such a challenge, they have a way of making that decision clear in the ballot box.

But of course there’s something even deeper here. And it comes down to the distinction between coercion and trust. In China, coercion can be operated by the government, exercised by government leaders as the basic dynamic. That can’t be done in the United States and the United States. Leadership does not come by that kind of coercion. It instead comes by the exercise of trust. And here’s something that we need to recognize. In China, given the scary realities of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state, coercion can now be exercised down to the minutia of life, even using things such as facial recognition software. In the United States, we’re in a very different position, but this points to a vulnerability in the United States as well as a strength and a worldview analysis has to consider this. The strength is trust, but the vulnerability is trust. When that trust breaks down because of whatever reason, the reality is that our society becomes more and more dysfunctional, less and less properly functional. What we’re going to be watching right now is that under the strain of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be testing American trust, we’re going to see that basic fundamental trust that makes America possible, we’re going to see it tested and we’re going to see a tested of course beyond the borders of the United States, but we’re going to see it tested within the United States, not only at the national level related to national leaders, the executive branch, Congress and the judicial branch, but all the way down to state government and local government.

And this reminds us of something else that Christians need to keep in mind. We as Christians fear the Leviathan state. We fear an overreaching over expansive government, but we need to remind ourselves that as the Bible makes clear, government is one of God’s good gifts to his human creatures. Romans 13 makes that very clear. Government is also implicated in the dominion command that is found in the very first chapter of Scripture. Dominion, taking dominion of the earth and of all the creatures that fill the earth, that dominion would require some kind of organization and whatever you would call that organization, even in the garden of Eden would have been some form of government.

But the Christian worldview reminds us that what was good in the garden becomes ever more necessary in a fallen corrupted world, which is to say that marriage would have been beautiful in the garden, absolutely necessary for taking dominion. It is even more important as a structure of civilization given the reality and challenge of sin. The same thing is true for the family. The same thing is true for government. The Bible makes clear that the worst possible condition under which human beings can operate is anarchy, such as in the Old Testament when we are told that the danger is that every man will do what is right in his own sight. In Romans chapter 13, the apostle Paul tells Christians living in Rome of all places right at the capital then of the Roman empire, which was an idolatrous God hating empire. At that time, the apostle Paul reminded the Christians living there and the Holy Spirit through that book reminds Christians right now, wherever we live, that government itself is one of God’s gifts. And government has responsibilities. Christians would understand that one of the most important responsibilities of government is care for neighbor.

What we’re looking at now is the fact that we need government authorities. We need government experts. We need people who are serving in places such as the Centers for Disease Control. We need government controlling borders and monitoring who is coming in and going out of this nation. We need government to establish certain structures and even to give assurance and trust and confidence to the American people as well as factual based advice, warning, and policy so that we know what to do in the face of this kind of infectious threat.

Part II

Where Does Your Confidence Lie? The Test of the Coronavirus

But next, as we’re thinking about the headlines in virtually all the newspapers yesterday and the headlines continuing today, we’re looking at economic implications. The Wall Street Journal: “Global Markets Stagger.” The New York Times: “Markets Spiral as Globe Shutters Over Virus.” It is very interesting that the verbs used in these headlines in the two most influential papers in the United States were shutter and stagger. The point is that the stock market has experienced a very sharp drop on Monday.

Of course, there had been previous drops in the days before, but what we are looking at is the threat that there will be a new reset of the global economy, and that means also of the American economy. And that takes us back to the fact that we have vulnerabilities that were beyond our imagination, but it points to something else. We as Christians understand that our ultimate confidence can be in God and only in God, but we do understand that there are other structures that we depend upon in this life, on this earth, and we tend to sometimes to get our confidence in those structures out of proportion biblically. That is to say there are an awful lot of people who had too much trust in the stock market. They had too much trust in the burgeoning and growing American economy. They had too much trust in the fundamental strengths of the American economy in the current years, and they also had too much confidence in the stocks they held or the bonds or the portfolio or the bank account.

I mean not here to sow any paranoia or despair, there is no ground for either, but it is a humbling reminder once again of the fact that our confidence ultimately can be only in God. We can’t have ultimate confidence even in the Centers for Disease Control. We certainly can’t have ultimate confidence in any kind of human system because we can’t have ultimate confidence in any earthly thing or in any human structure or human beings, singular or plural—in God and in God alone. This is a reminder of that and it’s a reminder when it comes to our health. It’s a reminder when it comes to the length of our days. It’s a reminder when it comes to the social health of our society. It’s a reminder when it comes to our IRAs and 401ks and bank accounts. It’s a reminder about the totality of life.

One final thought about the COVID-19 crisis. Isn’t it interesting how our language becomes metaphorical? Just think about the fact that in the computer world, those codes that were going wild were described as computer viruses. We talked about ideas or even memes going viral in society. We had people making music and making movies who hoped that their products would go viral, but in our current context, viral is not an innocent modifier. It is not an innocent metaphor. We’re reminded of the fact that viruses kill. And our language betrays at times the fact that we can abstract ourselves even from the kinds of realities that we turn into metaphors. COVID-19 is not a metaphor. It is a clear and present danger. It is a great challenge to us and a reminder to us of our dependence upon God. But given the fact that we are human beings on the other side of this challenge, virus will become a metaphor once again for some time, until at some point it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But speaking of vocabulary and the virus, I said that was the final thought on the issue, but now I’m going to offer a final, final thought on the issue for today and this takes us to an article that ran in recent days in the news magazine The Week about woke epidemiology where we are told that the World Health Organization has urged against saying that people are, “Transmitting COVID-19 or infecting others or spreading the virus because that wording assigns blame.”

Instead, the World Health Organization says that we should simply refer to people acquiring the virus. Now let’s just think about that for a moment. It’s an attempt to try to bring this kind of woke terminology even to an epidemic, but I’m going to argue that there are severe limitations upon the ability to remove the moral context there. Even though there may be people who are spreading the virus who are doing so innocently, naively, they don’t know that they are, they do not know that they have the virus much less that they’re spreading the virus, we do understand that human agency is here very much involved, and once there’s human agency, there is no way to remove the language of moral responsibility. So put it another way. If I get the virus, I have acquired the virus, but if I got it from you, you spread the virus.

Part III

The Nazi Next Door—94-Year-Old Nazi Concentration Camp Guard Found Living in Tennessee

But finally today as we’re thinking about evil, moral evil and natural evil, when it comes to moral evil, at least we would like to think that we would know it when we see it. But tell that to neighbors in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who knew their neighbor living in a ranch house as nothing but a kindly old man until he was just ordered deported by the United States government because of his complicity in the Holocaust. Rick Rojas and Richard Fausset writing for the New York Times tell us, “It is perhaps fitting that the decades long search for Nazi collaborators living on United States soil may have reached its conclusion or something close to it in a small city, in an unremarkable ranch house on an equally unremarkable cul-de-sac. By many accounts, the man living inside that house was also seemingly unremarkable, not unlike the dozens of other under-the-radar Nazi collaborators who’ve been found and prosecuted over the last half century.”

This man is 94 years old and that is why the United States Department of Justice believes that it is now winding down its efforts to try to locate and then to deport and bring to justice those who were actively involved in collaborators in the Nazi regime and in particular the killing regime of the Third Reich in the Holocaust, the intentional killing of 6 million Jews and others as well. The arrest of this 94-year-old man living for so many decades in the United States in this ranch house on a quiet street in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was a wakeup call for the man’s neighbors who said they could not have imagined that he was, as the United States has now declared, an active collaborator in one of the worst instances of the second World War.

The federal prosecutors convinced the court that Mr. Berger was part of the SS machinery of oppression that kept concentration camp prisoners in atrocious conditions of confinement and the prosecutors went on to point out that this led not only to the injury and emaciation of many of those prisoners, but to their elimination, to their deaths. The prosecutors also pointed out that Mr. Berger had volunteered to wear the Nazi uniform at this point. Many of those who have been arrested or charged with similar kinds of crimes, war crimes defended themselves by saying that they had been coerced into the uniform, but that appears not to have been the case with Mr. Berger.

Remember that the Bible warns us that our sins will find us out. This man at age 94 must have imagined that he had gotten away with it, that he had placed himself in the United States and that he would die in peace in that ranch house in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But something happened that he could not have envisioned. That was the fact that SS cards identifying him along with other prison camp guards, which had been on a boat that was sunk by the Allies, these cards were discovered in 1950 but they had disintegrated. But modern technology meant that these cards could be reassembled, and thus the names and all the identifying information on those SS cards could now be fully understood, leading to the fact that most of those cards represented human beings long since dead, but not in this case, a 94-year-old man living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The federal judge in this case found Mr. Berger guilty of “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place,” and then ordered his deportation to Germany. But Devora Fish, identified as the director of education for the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, said this: “Every time that somebody is brought to justice, even from 50 years ago or longer, that is a message to the world because we’re not going to stop until everybody is brought to justice. Even if it’s something you did years ago, it will catch up to you.”

Now, sadly, that is not always the case when it comes to a human court of justice, but here’s where Christians understand that the Bible makes clear that it will always be the case when it comes to the court and to the justice of Almighty God. On that day before that Judge, all things will be revealed and everything will be made known and there will be the execution of perfect justice to the glory of God alone. It is deeply humbling to us to recognize how little we sometimes see. The neighbors of this man did not see a Nazi war criminal. They just saw an elderly man living in the United States who had come from Germany. But what we cannot see, God sees. On that, we can absolutely depend.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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